We talk to India’s first and only certified chocolate taster, L Nitin Chordia about how it all began, his adventures with cocoa and his sheer passion for taking Indian artisanal chocolates and cocoa to the global audience. And why he thinks it is important to support the artisanal chocolate makers in India.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you chose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
WHEN L NITIN CHORDIA was appointed lead consultant for Godrej Nature’s Basket in 2007, his first task was to source chocolate. He spent a year meeting 80 different chocolatiers from around the world, trying to understand what was good and bad cacao. On one such trip, Chordia was working on a presentation when he popped a small piece of chocolate into his mouth. The flavour was so intense and tangy that he thought he’d eaten a fruit by mistake. It was his introduction to single-origin chocolate.
Single-origin chocolate, made of beans sourced solely from a particular region, came up in defiance of commercial brands that use blends with cacao or coffee from several different countries, caring more about volume than flavour or quality. “Pure cacao has never really been in our culture. We grew up with commercial chocolates like Dairy Milk and Kit Kat. Our idea of chocolate is something fiercely sweet. Single-origin cacao offered a diversity and complexity of flavour that I had never associated with chocolate before. It was like having a fine wine. I could taste fruity, nutty and even flowery notes,” says Chordia, the country’s first and only certified chocolate taster.
While setting up the entire merchandise at Godrej Natures basket during the launch, chocolates were an important category. I spent a lot of time researching chocolates from across the world (I am talking 2007!) and figured out the intriguing difference between fine chocolates, bean to bar chocolates and commercial chocolates. Something the larger world and even the fine food audience did not bother to understand. I got very curious and understood in detail the bean to bar making process. I was all of 27 at that point in time! I had no idea what was leading me to this knowledge and now (in the famous words of Steve Jobs) I am connecting the dots. I had no indication that a search for the finest food products would lead me to focus full-time on chocolates. Hence, I have had my fair share of exposure to chocolates from a very young age. Looking back, I think it was only natural that I did something about my passion and interest in fine chocolates!
Do you have a food background?
L Nitin Chordia is a M.Sc in Retail Management from the University of Surrey, UK and a Retail business consultant/sparring partner by profession and is now India’s 1st and only certified chocolate taster and a curator of the best chocolates from across the world. I have a very relevant Food & Grocery Retail background and have worked closely with Godrej Natures basket in helping them set up their business in Mumbai in 2008.
Offered by the International Institute of Chocolate Tasting based in London, the course has three levels of certification. Chennai-based L. Nitin Chordia, who recently completed the second level, says, “The first level introduces the genetics of cocoa and helps identify the various flavour notes and aromas. The next level is about further understanding the cocoa fruit, its various origins, the chocolate-making process in detail, aspects of flavour profiling and the impact of defects in cocoa on the flavour profile of fine chocolates. In the final level, more is spoken about the roots of cacao farming, its practices and its impact on flavour profile.”
Currently, the certification is available in the U.K., Italy and the U.S. Nitin has been part of the first batch of the first two levels. He runs a chocolate-tasting club, Cocoatrait, and is planning to bring the course to India next year. “To qualify, one must have a basic background in flavour profiling and sensory evaluation. You need not be a chocolatier, but culinary knowledge is an added advantage,” he says.
What did you do after graduation?
When he returned home to Chennai in 2013 after completing a course from the London-based Institute of Fine Chocolate, he found the cacao market had deteriorated. “There were import restrictions on cacao and every chocolatier was using compound chocolate [a cheap, low-grade alternative which uses hard vegetable fats in place of cacao butter] in some form or the other,” he says. And while the single-origin movement in cacao (and later coffee) was making headlines abroad for protecting small estates from corporate exploitation and consumers from substandard produce, India, the 13th largest producer of cacao and sixth largest producer of coffee in the world, remained happily unaware.
“By 2014 we could get Snickers, Mars and Bounty readily in India. Cadbury was buying our cacao and Mars had plans to do the same. And the market was ecstatic, but it was largely an illusion—volume might have gone up, but quality was abysmal. Commercial chocolate uses so much sugar and milk that the bean is almost destroyed and artificial cacao flavour needs to be added in the end. Corporate chocolatiers would happily throw in cacao from ten different countries because all that matters to them is bulk manufacturing and consistency. The beauty of artisanal or single-origin chocolate is that every chocolate can voice a flavour of its own,” says Chordia. That same year, he started Cocoatrait, a 20,000-member strong community of chocolate lovers, through which he’s been championing single-origin, and of late, single- estate cacao. While the former helps preserve the identity of cacao from a single region, the latter encourages individual growers to invest in the quality of their product.
What are the skills of a chocolate taster?
About the beans and the chocolate makers you work with – Coming from a sensory background as a certified chocolate taster, I have an approach of working backwards. I work with most bean to bar makers across the country in various capacities/aspects. Flavour development, Recipe development, Sourcing of beans, Sourcing of equipment, distributing their product, promoting their products, educating the consumer to name a few. I work with beans from across the world and also distribute chocolates from reputed makers in India and overseas. Most chocolate makers are young and do not follow the old school thoughts but surely are worth their weight in salt. I work only with selected chocolatiers who know what they are doing and who want to make a sustainable difference.
“The 20 degree north and south rule, which says that this is the latitudinal extent for growing cacao, is a myth. The cacao bean reached India as early as the 1780s. I recently found historical documents that prove that cacao was even grown in Bengal and Maharasthra until a century ago. Cacao really came up in the 1900s when Cadbury started planting beans in the country. It’s ironic that we associate chocolate with Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy, when in reality these countries are processors of chocolate, not growers. India, which is both, has the potential to make a name for itself in the chocolate world if farmers are encouraged to grow high-quality, rare beans,” says David Belo, a former British bartender who relocated to Mysore three years ago to start Earth Loaf, an artisanal chocolate company that uses only locally sourced, single-origin cacao and ingredients. He says he came to India at the start of the single-origin movement, because he was intrigued by how chocolate, typically seen as an indulgent product, could be changed to something healthy by not over-processing the bean (which destroys the antioxidant benefits of cacao) and lowering the amount of unhealthy fat and sugar added to the final bar. “Single-origin doesn’t only mean high quality for the consumer, it means a better flavour profile and a healthier product. For the grower, it means a better return on investment,” he adds.
Every bean has its own distinct taste: fruity, nutty, boozy, winey, oaky, you name it. Single-origin coffee lets us explore and appreciate these flavours in vivid detail
Bean to bar. What’s involved?
The process of converting bean to bar has always been the way chocolates were made in large factories. With the invent of smaller sized equipments, this process is now being made possible by artisans in much smaller units with a lot lesser investment. This process involves, selecting the right cocoa beans, sorting/grading it, roasting it, taking off the shells, grinding pure cocoa (after de-shelling), conching it for flavour evolution, tempering and then moulding them into delicious chocolate bars!
Describe a typical day at Cocoatrait.
A typical day involves tasting a piece of a new chocolate and providing feedback! These are the samples that I receive from various bean to bar makers who have been trying really hard to develop the finest chocolates with available ingredients. I provide them my feedback. Apart from this, a few educational conversations about how to taste chocolate and also a few presentation options are always researched. The aim is to present fine chocolates in the right forum and right manner to the deserving audience. Overall my son always wonders how much chocolate can i talk !?
Your work space
I work in the confines of cocoa and chocolates (both good and bad). We are in the process of setting up a chocolate making/appreciation school called Cocoashala and this will entail being surrounded by chocolates through the day. Apart from this, i represent 5 bean to bar chocolate brands in Tamilnadu and am always looking at appropriate channels to place them so that they reach the eight target audience. Further, I make the right bean to bar making equipment available to enthusiasts and regularly experiment with these equipments to get the best out of them.
Your most interesting cocoa travels & experiences.
My 1st backpacking trip (which was to Belgium) was a very memorable one. I tasted many chocolates for the 1st time. A visit to Amsterdam for the worlds largest chocolate festival where Cocoatrait had hosted the India Pavillion with representation of various bean to bar makers and cocoa farmers from India. I have singled out these 2 events because these were game changers and the latter helped establish in the fine chocolates map of the world! The other that I can remember is a Europe trip with my wife. The pretext was a vacation but the hidden agenda was to get her an insight into the fine chocolate world. As a result of that interesting chocolate experience/trip, I now have my wife Poonam Chordia become my most severe critic and an accomplished chocolatier who experiments and pushes the boundary with flavours (not bean to bar though!)
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business?
Give it your all. If you are scared of (and thinking twice before) investing all your savings into this business, you should not be doing it! You are looking at a safe haven and an FD in the bank would serve you better! The market is very large. Find the gap and ensure that you approach it severely positively. No job is small. Please respect the plumber for what he does and achieves. The watchman for his efforts and the sweeper for his time! All this comes from none other than my dad! While many may think I am already successful, I do not consider myself as an achiever until my dad pats me on my back and says that I have done a lot. AND that is not going to be easy to come by so soon! Hence I have miles to go!
Your advice for aspiring food artisans / food entrepreneurs? Do not ever believe, for even one moment, that a concept or product or idea that you have seen and liked is going to be liked by your customers! Understand the gap in the market. The gap cannot be a simple one. Your offering has to connect many dots and make it worthwhile to do this business! On the way, remember what Jack Ma once said, ‘When Selling to close friends and family, no matter how much you’re selling to them, they will always feel you’re earning their money, no matter how cheap you sell to them, they still wouldn’t appreciate it.’ Focus on your customer. They are the most important. He further said “There will always be people who do not care about your Costs, Time, Effort, they rather let other people cheat them, allowing others to earn, then supporting someone they know. Cause in their heart, they will always be thinking, ‘How much did he earn from me?’ instead of “How much did he SAVE/MAKE for me?” Ignore such people and focus on the customer’s needs!